New state, business and philanthropic initiative aims to help students with technology, internet access

Jessica Miles
Updated: July 01, 2020 06:26 PM
Created: July 01, 2020 05:57 PM

While most of us have become accustomed to easily accessing what we want online in seconds, for many Minnesotans access is not easy and that has made distance learning very difficult for some students.

Last spring, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS showed you how some students in northern Minnesota, near Virginia, would drive to school and sit in the parking lot to get online just to do their homework.

Distance learning on Minnesota's Iron Range — with no broadband

The Minnesota Department of Education estimates at least 25,000 students lack the technology and high-speed internet access essential for academic learning.

Bernadine Joselyn is with the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, the state's largest rural-based philanthropy.

"Truly, the silver lining in the work from COVID-19 is that it has shown a huge light on the inequities at the heart of our public education system," she said.

It's led to an initiative called ConnectedMN.

The Blandin Foundation, along with private companies like Best Buy and Comcast, along with the state, are stepping in donating and raising money to help.

"Part of what we hope to do is invest in immediate needs and invest in longer-term solutions," Joselyn said.

At Hibbing High School, some of those immediate needs this spring were hotspots for internet access.

State announces public-private partnership to help tech needs of families with children in school

The hotspots were what saved us the most with letting kids get on for their distance-learning," said Hibbing High School Principal Mike Finco.

More than 200 students were given hotspots but it came with a cost.

"At $50 bucks a contract, per unit, per month, that adds up to be some dollars in a hurry," Finco said.

Asked if he feels like the ConnectedMN initiative will help the school district, Finco said, "Well, it’s going to help us finance it, what will ultimately help is if everyone could have equal access through a broadband project."

Money raised could bring more hotspots to students this fall but will also be invested in long-term internet solutions.

"The quicker that we can get those services out to people the better we’re all going to be connected," he said.

"Our approach to the funding is to get the dollars as close to the ground as possible, informed by the needs of the local people in their local communities," Joselyn added.

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